Issue 6: Winter 2010

The Paradoxes of Dimitri Kirsanoff: 'Menilmontant' Within the Avant-Garde Tradition

Santiago Rubín de Celis

For a long time, the name Dimitri Kirsanoff (sometimes spelt Kirsanov) has been dismissed as "as an old-fashioned filmmaker, an auteur of the silent era" (1) and almost forgotten. His most prestigious and critically acclaimed films such as Ménilmontant (1924) and Brumes d'automne (1928) are, in fact, among his early silent films. This article intends, firstly, to give a general account of his work and then, by focusing on these two films, to highlight his association with a certain avant-garde tradition of French silent cinema which remains firmly established in movie history.

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Dimitri Kirsanoff was born Marc David Kaplan on March 6th, 1899, in Tartu, Estonia although some other sources indicate as his birth place as Riga, Latvia. He emigrated to the French capital, as did so many other Slavic artists at the time, after the Russian Revolution in 1919. In Paris, Kirsanoff studied in the École Normale de Musique and later he found a job as a musical accompanist  to silent films (as a cellist, not a violinist as has been often stated) in such Parisian movie theatres as the Cluny, the Artistic or the Danton. Indeed, it was in a movie theatre that the would-be filmmaker met the woman who would play the lead in many of his future films, a young French girl working in photographic enlarging, called Nadia Sibirskaia (also spelt Sibirskaïa). Since both of them were keen on cinema, they struggled together to get work as film actors in various French movie companies. They did not succeed but, far from discouraging them, these setbacks spurred them on towards a different direction. Using the scarce funds they had been able to raise together, they made their first film, L'Ironie du destin (1923), "knowing nothing" (2) about filmmaking technique. Although no copies of the film are preserved today, film historian Richard Abel describes it as a simple story of a love found and lost, and it is reputed to be the first French silent film without titles. (3) Despite its lack of commercial distribution or exhibition, the film was picked up by independent distributor Jean Tédesco, who was also the Chief Editor of the film review Cinéa-Ciné-Pour-Tous. Tédesco, who was considered one of the most demanding film programmers at the time, was also the owner of the prestigious cine-club Vieux-Colombier. There, by screening independent films made outside the movie industry, he had proved "that a repertoire of bold films that was big enough to feed a regular commercial cinema already existed by then, as well as an audience willing to accept it". (4)

A year later, during the winter of 1924, Kirsanoff and Sibirskaia shot their next film, Ménilmontant under the shooting title Les cent pas. The film was written for the screen, produced, edited and directed by Kirsanoff. In order to shoot the film "he hired an old cameraman Leonce Crouen, then out of a job. Crouen shot only the beginning of Ménilmontant, ‘everything which is in two dimensions.' Then, Kirsanov ‘took the camera off the tripod' and ‘shot the rest' himself". (5)

Nadia Sibirskaia, of course, played the lead the role of the younger sister. As Marcel Lapierre has written: "Sibirskaia was for Kirsanoff not just an actress but a full collaborator. They both worked on a common oeuvre. Their ideas and their searches were complementary". (6)

And it seems quite obvious that, as in the case of Louis Feuillade and Musidora for example, the filmmaker developed his film projects always keeping in mind the dramatic qualities of his actress.

"Kirsanov's (sic) lead was a beautiful Russian (7) who evidently bore to him something of the relation that Brigitte Bardot bore Roger Vadim, Monica Vitti bore Antonioni, and Anna Karina bore Jean-Luc Godard". (8)

That "something", as in the equally paradoxical cases of Louise Brooks and G. W. Pabst, and Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, to which Tyler could have also referred, was mainly the fact that, paraphrasing Lotte Eisner, "just her presence assured the essence of the work of art". (9) In the nine pictures they made together, Kirsanoff used the actress to create a powerful erotic attraction, and, at the same time, he gets the audience to feel a great deal of affection for a particular female stereotype represented by Sibirskaia. Furthermore, all those pictures share, with films like Pabst's Pandora's Box (Die Buechse der Pandora, 1928), Sternberg's Blonde Venus (1932), Vadim's And... God Created Woman (Et Dieu créa la femme, 1956), and Godard's Vivre sa vie (1962), the quality of being not only a fiction but also a kind of portrait or documentary on their leading actresses. They are not just films with them in the cast but actually films on them. Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasillach were early conscious of it, as they defined Brumes d'automne (1928), Kirsanoff's next film, as "a sort of poem to Nadia Sibirskaya's (sic) face". (10)

Once it was completed, Ménilmontant (1925) was again rejected by the Parisian film exhibitors. So, as in the case of L'ironie du destin, Tédesco bought it for the second season of screenings at the Vieux-Colombier, one of the most important movie theatres for French avant-garde films of the period. From its January 1926 opening there, the film was not just an immediate success with the audience but went on to obtain the status of a classic within specialized movie theatres and the cine-club exhibition circuit in Paris.

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Following the same aesthetic line of exacerbated lyricism proposed in his previous works, Kirsanoff, continuing to work alongside his star, shot a number of melodramas such as Destin (1926; a.k.a. Sylvie); Sables (1927), of which, according to Demeure, no copy survives; and Brumes d'automne, one of his masterpieces, a cinematic poem about the end of love that shows the filmmaker's penchant for using visual metaphors as well as for subjective tales. Similar to most silent era filmmakers, the transition to sound wasn't easy for Kirsanoff. However Rapt (1933), a film based on Ramuz's La séparation des races with music by Arthur Honegger and Arthur Hoerée, is, according to Georges Sadoul, one of the best examples of "musical counterpoint" in French film. But, in spite of having worked with some of the most prestigious actors in the French star-system, like Dita Parlo (Rapt), Jules Berry (L'Avion de minuit, 1938), Robert Le Vigan (Franco de Port, 1937; L'Avion...) and Jean Servais (Quartier sans soleil, 1939; not realised until 1945), we can hardly discuss Kirsanoff's work in the '30s without using the word ‘stagnation'. As Adams Sitney has put it, unlike such filmmakers as Lang, L'Herbier or Murnau, Kirsanoff wasn't able to find a balance between his very personal cinematic vision and the commercial market. (11)

"Conditioned by the whims of production, he knew periods of work and others of inactivity, but what is unusual is that he never stopped shooting alternatively short and full-length films". (12)

One of those periods of inactivity, the longest in fact, spanned the German occupation of France (1940-1945). Immediately afterwards, the filmmaker shot one of his finest works, the critically acclaimed Les deux amis (1945), a medium-length film based on the story of the same name by Guy de Maupassant. By then, Kirsanoff was his own independent producer which allowed him to rebelliously alternate modest personal projects, including the shorts Arrière-Saison (1950), thematically and aesthetically reminiscent of certain elements elements of Brumes d'automne; Une chasse à courre (1951); and Mécanisation et remembrement (1953) made for the Cinématheque of the French Ministry of Agriculture, with commercial projects. Most of these were simple examples of the, by then, film genre à la mode in France: the ‘polar' or the French film noir, like Le témoin de minuit (1953), Le crâneur (1955), with popular French stars like Marina Vlady and Raymond Pellegrin playing the leads, or Miss Catastrophe (1956), Kirsanoff's last film. One of the filmmaker's last projects, as he confessed to Walter S. Michel and Lotte Eisner (13), was to shoot a film in Spain. However Kirsanoff passed away too soon, on February 11th, 1957, in Paris.

"An exaggerated respect for Art, a mysticism of expression has lead a whole group of producers, actors and audiences to create a kind of cinema called avant-garde, standing out because of it's production's speed, it's absence of any human emotion and the danger it represents to all the rest of the movie industry". (14)

Those were the words used by the surrealist poet and film critic Robert Desnos to express the peak the French avant-garde cinema had reached by the end of the 1920's. Avant-garde cinema had sprung up at the very same time in several European countries: Germany, Russia, France. But, according to Jacques B. Brunius, it was in France that

"it developed as a movement; if not the most coherent, at least the most determined, systematic and long-lasting". (15)

Why was this the case? The period of time that elapsed between the Great War and World War II was one of fertile renewal in the international artistic panorama thanks to the continuous emergence of new tendencies in art such as Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Expressionism, Rayonism, Vorticism, Futurism, Constructivism, Orphism and so on. Paris, one of the most important international artisticcentres on the old continent, was set up as the capital of Modern Art. However, to analyze such a complex phenomenon as French avant-garde cinema movement, it's necessaey to focus on some very precise factors.

One of the most decisive impulses behind this kind of new approach to film making was the existence of a highly dynamic circuit of independent film exhibition. Specialized movie theatres and cine-clubs like Ciné-Opéra, Ursulines, Studio 28, Ciné-Club de France, Le Club des Amis du Septième Art, Vieux-Colombier, etc, were used as a platform from which avant-garde filmmakers could show films that, in any other case, would have never been screened in public. This independent circuit also made conferences and debates focusing on film possible and spawned an audience interested in them. Regular lecturers at the Vieux-Colombier sessions included, among others and apsrt from Tédesco, the filmmakers Jean Epstein, René Clair, Germaine Dulac, Abel Gance, Marcel L'Herbier and Alberto Cavalcanti, the film critics Léon Moussinac and Jean Mitry, the actor Philippe Hériat, and writers such as Blaise Cendrars (screenwriter of Abel Gance's La Roue, 1921), Colette and André Obey.

But "with such limited and fragmentary distribution, the dissemination of the avant-garde and the Art Cinema largely relied on the art journals of the period" (16), from the radical art journals such as G or De Stijl to avant-garde film reviews like the Swiss-based Close-Up, the British Film Art or the American Experimental Film. At the same time, in France, there was a flourishing of a huge number of film journals and magazines: Cinémagazine, Cinéa-Ciné-Pour-Tous, La Revue du cinéma, Mon-ciné, Cinéa, Le Journal du Ciné-Club... Browsing today through its pages, we find the regular regular contributions from would-be directors like the above mentioned Epstein and Clair, Henri Diamant-Berger, and Jean de Baroncelli. Nevertheless, a closer look at film criticism of the time reveals one name as standing out: Louis Delluc. Writing for Le Film, Delluc defended the idea of cinema, far beyond popular entertainment, as an art, and formulated a method for film analysis similar to that used by art critics. One can count among the first contributors to film theory such authors as: Ricciotto Canudo; Moussinac (in Le Crapouillot and L'Humanité); Mitry; Pierre Bost (in Les Annales); Delluc himself, whose pioneering studies Cinéma et Cie and Photogénie were published between 1919 and 1920; and Epstein, who wrote his highly influential essay Bonjour, cinéma! in 1921.

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Another factor that should also be emphasized is the brave support of the new medium expressed by French intellectuals. Guillaume Apollinaire, editor of his own periodical Les Soirées de Paris; Blaise Cendrars; Jean Cocteau, who will direct one of the most striking cinematic surrealist manifestos: The Blood of a Poet (Le Sang d'un poète, 1931); Paul Morand; Colette, writing the column 'Critique des films' in Le Film; Pierre MacOrlan; Max Jacob or the previously quoted Desnos, contributor to La Révue du cinéma, who among many others, claimed early on to be fascinated by cinema. André Breton, one of the leaders of the Surrealist group, fiercely evokes in his novel Nadja (1928):

"the remembrance of the eighth and last episode of a film that I saw screened there, very near, in which a Chinese man, having discovered the means to multiply himself, invaded New York alone, using millions of copies of himself. The Chinese entered President Wilson's office followed by himself and himself and himself, and the President took off his monocle. This film is by far the one that impressed me most. It was titled L'Etreinte de la Pieuvre (17)". (18)

Finally, we must add to the interconnected net of film critics and scholars, specialized publications, independent distributors and exhibitors, and young filmmakers, the fact that, as Spanish avant-garde cinema scholar José Luis López Clemente has stated, there was a powerful experimental tradition linked to the early French movie pioneers. (19) It's not difficult to track down this tradition from Gance's La folie du Docteur Tube (1915) to L'Herbier's Rose France (1918) and Le Carnaval des verités (1919).

"Many of them" wrote Bardèche and Brasillach "were erroneous and exaggerated, yet it was thanks to the various enthusiasms and experiments of those four years that cinematography as a whole managed to extricate itself from the rut into which it seemed to be slipping". (20)

So what is Kirsanoff's position, if any, within avant-garde filmmaking? And, furthermore, how to include his work in a body of films so heterogeneous? He stated many time that he hadn't been in contact with any other avant-garde filmmakers of the time. So now we find ourselves in the difficult position of cataloguing some of his early works under the same label as a vast collection of films which differ widely from one another. Those films, as a whole, have little in common other than their independence from the film industry. Numerous film critics and film historians have proposed different classifications in an attempt to simplify this task: Burch and Fieschi separated a 'Premiere Vague' (that of Epstein, L'Herbier, Dulac and Delluc) from a second avant-garde whose most noted films were Buñuel's Un chien andalou (1929) and L'Age d'or (1930) (21); Brunius, on the other hand, proposed quite arbitrarily four different stages embracing the whole phenomenon of the avant-garde (22); the notion of an ‘Impressionist school' has been commonly used to distinguish the group of early French filmmakers referred to above from the films made in the late 20's by Dadaists and Surrealists. P. Adams Sitney refered to "two lines of developement [that] have persisted since the inception of the avant-garde cinema in Europe: the graphic and the subjective". (23) Sometimes, they have run parallel; sometimes, they have overlaped. But their evolution phases have been quite different. Richard Abel has distinguished between the Art Cinema, or the narrative avant-garde, and the Artists's avant-garde, originated by Cubism and Futurism. Artist-filmmakers such as Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger or Walter Ruttmann tried to translate a certain pictorial sensibily to film. Their main idea was that film was not a representational medium. Because of that, film was the proper visual art and it was absolutely necessary to establish a ‘pure cinema', as Richter named it. Films like Fernand Léger's Ballet Mécanique (1924), Marcel Duchamp's Anémic cinéma (1926) or Man Ray's Emak Bakia (1928) and L'Étoile de mer (1928) were non-narrative experiments based in motion and optical deformation and more interested in the potential visual capacities of cinema than in developing a dramatic evolution of a story. Opposed to them there was an old narrative tradition in the French avant-garde cinema, from Gance's early films to L'Herbier's and Delluc's. It is there where we can find a first break:

"when the Russian Dimitri Kirsanov (sic) made Ménilmontant in Paris, at the same time (1924) that René Clair made Entr'acte, he apparently had no Dada-Surrealist ideas, only the ‘personal' idea of telling a story of an unfortunate seduced girl while using the emergent poetic vocabulary and hand-held camera". (24)

Parallel to the previous appreciation, David Bordwell has described how the French narrative avant-garde cinema quickly established a formal stylistic paradigm intended to achieve a basic function: to express or to represent subjectivity or a particular subjective experience. (25) That is exactly the case with Kirsanoff. Ménilmontant and later Brumes d'Automne are simply subjective evocations, romantic and lyrical, of love stories come to an end. They were both included by Brunius in the fourth period of French avant-garde cinema alongside the early works of Buñuel, Ray and Cocteau. In the latter film, by the use of certain narrative procedures (like the hand-held camera trying to make the audience identify with the girl's point of view) and photographic techniques (such as the use of the dissolve and optical distortions), its sense of rhythm (created by alternate montage) and the appearance and re-appearance of various expressive motifs (rain and puddles, fire, barren leaves...), it proposes a symbolic game that gives us access to the character's deepest feelings.

As we can see, the main connections between Kirsanoff's first works and the French avant-garde cinema lie in a common attempt to achieve a formal renewal of the institutionalised cinematographic language:

"an extraordinary taste for experimentation that leads them to carry out their investigations in different ways from one film to another". (26)

So far, then, we can definitively conclude that French avant-garde cinema consists of the abstract display of human thought. According to Bordwell, it is considered a "particular subjective experience", whereas to Germaine Dulac it was intended to "investigate and spread all the possibilities of expression contained in a camera's lens".

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Let's look at some examples in Ménilmontant itself.

Before the unexpected murder of their parents, two young sisters leave the countryside where they lived and move to Ménilmontant, one of the humblest neighbourhoods in Paris. At the beginning, they both live together, working as flower sellers. The younger one (Nadia Sibirskaia) falls in love with a young man (Guy Belmore) and one night she gives herself to him. The seducer quickly abandons the girl and begins dating her sister (Yolande Beaulieu). The two girls are now rivals. So the younger girl, who has given birth to a baby, decides to commit suicide by jumping into the river Seine, although in the end she changes her mind. One night, both sisters meet by chance in the street and decide to live together again, while at the same time the man who had seduced both is killed by another woman.

Reading the previous summary of the film, it is evident that Ménilmontant deals thematically with popular melodrama. We can even say that the story of the ups and downs in life of these young and underprivileged two sisters concerns a kind of filmic feuilleton identified mainly with commercial filmmaking. But a close view of the history of ‘subjective film', as termed by Adams Sitney, shows us how it "passes from melodrama, in which the film-maker acts out a Freudian situation in a symbolic landscape, to the mythopoetic film". (27) So from this point of view the film might belong to a certain tradition within avant-garde cinema⎯that of an "urban realist melodrama set in Paris or in provincial cities, like in Delluc's Fièvre (1921) or Cavalcanti's Rien que les heures (1927) and En rade (1927)". (28) In fact, Ménilmontant is very similar both in subject and style to Epstein's Coeur fidèle (1923). However, Kirsanoff's connection with the movement seems to be more a question of ethics (e.g.: the avant-garde filmmakers' character's resistance to identifying with bourgeois subjectivity) and a common aesthetic search than anything else. On one hand he wanted to show reality in an unconventional manner as something stimulating, unusual and shocking. On the other, he wanted to break with the cinematic language used by commercial film by using a highly stylised one. However, Kirsanoff's film is much more than a simple realistic attempt to catch a slice of life as it is. It often mixes abstraction with formalism and realism at the same time. As Abel puts it, the film, like many others coming from the narrative avant-garde, is

"a mixture of styles or modes, a pastiche of techniques. There are sequences of violence in rapid montage, of dreamlike multiple superimpositions and lap dissolves (all done in camera), of documentary-like impressions (...), of classical continuity editing (...), and, unfortunately, of exaggerated sentiment". (29)

In fact, Ménilmontant is a faltering, truncated and elliptical tale: both the beginning (the sequence in which the parents are brutally murdered) and the end (the killing of the young seducer) seem autonomous from the rest of the film. The opening sequence, starting in media res, appears so brutal and shocking to the audience because of its abstract violence, the use of subjective points of view and rapid montage. The spectator lacks any bearings, spatial or temporal. In this sequence, an anonymous murderer, the victims, the hatchet, the banging door, and its other elements are all put on the same plain. There are real characters (although deprived of any sign of individuality), objects, and the connections between them. There is also a group of qualities potentially arising from that particular order of things- the savage violence and fury, madness, the panic on the victim's faces... The fundamental presence of the faces, expressing human emotions at the same time as linking those potentials to each other, belongs to the domain of what Deleuze called the image-affection. The size of the shots (mainly close-ups and inserts) and the fragmentation of the editing corroborate this. What to say about Sibirskaia's face? Kirsanoff's use of it confirms that "the close-up makes the face the purest material of affection". (30)

Such ambiguity comes to an end during the funeral and later as the two young orphans move to Paris. Excluding three brief interior sequences, almost all the film's action occurs outdoors. The depiction of Paris's streets (not only at their arrival but all throughout the film) is not dissimilar to that seen in films such as Mikhail Kaufman's Moskwa (1926), Walter Ruttmann's Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (Berlin, Symphonie einer Grosstadt, 1927) and Dziga Vertov's The Man with the Movie Camera (Cheloviek s Kinoaparatom, 1929). In all of them, documentary and avant-garde techniques such as out of focus effects, accelerated movement, superimpositions, double exposures, etc, are masterfully combined to present a dynamic vision of the city.

As the film continues the diegesis centres gradually towards the younger sister's love story: her rendezvous with the young man, the scenes in the park and, finally, the night spent together in his room. After their love's consummation, the girl leaves the hotel room and heads to the Pont Neuf where she evokes, breaking the film's linear narrative, a flashback to some happy child's play in the woods where she was brought up. As he will do in some of his next works (e.g. Brumes d'Automne), Kirsanoff likes to emphasize the subjective-tale condition of the film by frequently breaking its chronological order with memories and evocations of the past that also work towards creating its rather melancholic tone. There is, for instance, a sequence in which the younger sister who is starving and living in the open evokes the warmth of a fire-heated room and hot water in a wash-basin. There is also another in which she finds herself on the Pont Neuf embracing her baby while contemplating suicide. The filmmaker shows the audience her confusion, mental exhaustion and despair directly through her eyes by means of a quick sequence of distorted shots of passers-by, cars, surrounding trees and the River Seine (31) edited in a rapid montage. The great strength of this passage, with its internal focalization procedure, comes from the fact that the audience is seeing reality through the girl's eyes and simultaneously watches the whole scene which includes the girl herself.

Although I have already mentioned the notable use of ellipses in Menílmontant, I would like to examine it in depth. Elliptical tales are very representative of Kirsanoff's narrative style. He usually constructs his films leaving some important plot events unshown. For example, instead of showing us the moment in which the young girl becomes aware of her pregnancy, one which could have been highly dramatic, Kirsanoff uses an ellipsis to go from a shot in which she, now abandoned by her seducer, discovers him dating her sister to a close shot of a door with the word ‘Maternity' on it. This gives the necessary information. On the level of the screenplay, by using these ellipses the filmmaker seeks a significant dynamism very close to his own idea of film rhythm. "In the movies, there should be a cadence similar to that in music. That rhythm, coming from the editing, is what produces the visual poetry". (32)

But that particular taste for elliptical narratives (and often for quite abrupt ellipses) is precisely what makes the last part of the film rather ambiguous and confusing. The scene at the seedy hotel establishes a prelude to the sister's reunion. The older one is now a whore. In contrast, the younger keeps her dignity intact despite her condition as a homeless single mother without any faith in what the future could bring her. Their ups and downs in life are but two variations on the same theme: the loss of love, and separation. The film closes with an epilogue-like scene that lends the film a cricular form. It shows the assassination of the young seducer by an unknown woman and her accomplice. They beat him to death in the middle of the street in a scene that links perfectly to the opening (the killing of the girl's parents) both in its formal aspect (also violent and shocking) and in its sense of autonomy from the rest of the film's plot.

Because of all this, the general feeling left by Ménilmontant on a contemporary audience is of a slightly disjointed film: a tale lacking a sense of unity as if the plot itself had been only sketched by the filmmaker, a series of scenes and sequences not fitting together quite organically. Some film historians and critics have referred to the film as if it did not have a narrative at all. Walter S. Michel points out that "the ‘story' is quite simple, banal, just a frame" (33) from which to create the visual style of the film. But, according to Richard Prouty, the opposite is true. Kirsanoff organizes his film around shock experience, which means a repetitive assault on the senses (of his charactes, first, and then of the audience). So the filmmaker takes advantage of the conflict between that shocking experience and a visual pleasure that emerges from it.

"Because shock cannot be resolved by the narrative forms common to the commercial cinema of the time, he resorts to a narrative logic of the commodity, that is, the inconclusive return of meaningless difference. A consequence of this logic means that certain social experiences cannot be narrativized according to conventional forms". (34)

Anyway, the film undoubtedly strikes us now in much the same way as it did its audience in 1925. There are many reasons for this. First of all, its modernity, a side-effect of its avant-garde appearance. Also, its agile camera work: its mobility is quite surprising for the early 20's; Kirsanoff actually pioneered many of the techniques that would later appear in some French films of the late 20's. The sped-up rhythm brought about by a perceptive montage based on an idea of movement that breaks with Griffith's principle of organic composition should be also highly praised. And, besides of being a mixture of styles and techniques, the flamboyance with which it uses cinematographic language is undeniable. Long catalogued as a minor classic of the silent era, I hope Ménilmontant will soon be re-discovered as one of the masterpieces of avant-garde filmmaking and that this will bring long-overdue attention to its author.

James Devereaux